Flashback! To “Wednesday Comics…!”

So, the experiment’s been and gone.

What have we learned?

Well, the first thing we’ve learned is that non-comics people can read these things, and more than that — a lot of them think they’re so cool that they will read them.  So here is a testament to the joy of reading pictures in glorious Broadsheet-O-Vision:  if you’re looking for your entry-level comics, here they are…except they’re not really “entry-level” at all, because comics don’t need an “entry-level”.  Because that’s a myth, you see?  A story we tell ourselves (still! after all this time!) about how people really would like our special thing, if only we could ease them into it slowly enough.

Which is bullshit:  because they already like comics.  It is already their thing.  Possibly it’s even more their thing than it is ours;  unless that “them” and “us” is a wholly illusory distinction, a wall that only exists when you’re on the wrong side of it — a wall made of illusion, meant to protect an illusion.  And what’s the illusion?

The illusion is that we’re the connoisseurs, here.

But we’re not.  They are.

Because they like the art, and think the stories are stupid.  Which is a very accurate thing to think, because most of them are.  But the other thing they know is that stupid stories don’t matter, unless they really want you to take them seriously…”ooooh, look, Batman’s having a moral crisis…!”

(Seriously, who reads Batman for the moral crisis parts?)

…And then the stories make it so you can’t even enjoy the art anymore, but if the stories just exercise a little bit of restraint then whatever stupidity they have can be ignored…

So that would be your “entry-level” comic, then.  One that can be enjoyed;  one that is a pleasure to read, rather than a pain.

And most of the Wednesday Comics offerings were that;  but there were a few surprises in there too, I believe.  So, without further ado:

Batman: it’s hard, I find, to specify exactly what makes a good weekly page work.  There has to be conclusion, in the sense that (as Paul Pope’s lately remarked) the page has to be a whole work…I mean let’s not say “done-in-one”, why are we always saying “done-in-one”?  The Wednesday Comics format shows, I think, why the extolling of “done-in-one” virtues is stupid…you can be all done in one page, but that doesn’t mean you can’t still want to know “what happens next”!  And yet you have to play those cliffhangers nicely, I think, since it is just a page:  you have to play them just so.  The page still has to be a whole work, it can’t just be build-up to something really cool that’s coming later after you’ve done your chores…the page has to satisfy in itself as well as make you want to read more.  But if things are in such a state that those values have trouble coexisting with each other, if you can’t get one kind of satisfaction without giving up the other, hoo boy…that’s a big problem.

And it seems to me that the casual reader understands this.  Which maybe is why they’re the casual reader:  they’re uninterested, any old way, in being teased, splash-paged, or re-raised to death.  We rant on and on about wanting done-in-ones because we can’t just drop a book when it thinks it’s so much cleverer than we are it can afford to jerk us around like that, and so for us the done-in-one is the antidote to a way of storytelling that aims at devaluing what you just read.  The big twist comes!  None of that shit you were reading before matters, it was all just preamble, it’s the next installment you need to get!  Well why did I read this then, why am I reading this?

So, the good news is that Batman sustains the interest in a reasonable way, a way you can communicate with and participate in rather than some crazy interest that’s only interested in itself…but really it’s only because of the art.  The story’s dumb, and kind of boring.  Which is okay;  because I’m beginning to suspect this is a hard format to write for if you’re used to something else, and I’m really just here for the art anyway.  Not that the writer doesn’t have anything to do with that, either:  wow, you unfold this thing and suddenly you’re looking at two eyes looking back at you, BAM!  And reflected in them, the Batsignal.  You couldn’t start the whole thing off more perfectly, knowing perfectly well that you need both writer and artist to do it so nicely and neatly.  Then you get graveyard shadows and guns, then if you’re me and you accidentally open the next installment upside-down, you get a page where everything’s reversed except Batman himself, hanging from the ceiling, and you think “oh SHIT that’s a beautiful trick!” until you realize you’re an idiot…but you know, it doesn’t matter, because the whole package is still there.  I mean whatever with this noir-ish plot, we all know what the deal is, right?  And it does get a little plodding when the art has to go through the plot — Lord, but you simply cannot get away with any decompression in this format at all, it is absolutely punishing — but in the end it’s all attractive, and most parts of it are worth lingering over a good long while, and it doesn’t bloody well tease the crap out of you…although it’s interesting to note that this Batman does have problems with the beginning of each new page, Week #9 in particular (as gorgeous as it is) being something that both begins and ends very stubbornly in media res…which is, you know, not so hot.  I mean, that’s like a page out of a comic book, that kind of thing, and so we see that even this wonderfully moody Batman team isn’t just going to be perfectly perfect at it all right out of the box.

And we could contrast this with Metal Men and Metamorpho, a little bit, because they’re a bit hung up in the same way.  Metal Men would make a simply awful comic book, because it’s all really dumb and it’s quite hard to care about it, the art notwithstanding…but as dumb as it is, because it’s as dumb as it is, it manages to give you value-for-page:  because it’s pretty superficial, so the tension’s pretty superficial, and so it should light up at the end and play a little jingle called “Oh No It’s A Cliffhanger”, and so there you go.  A work of art it ain’t, but you can read it.  You’re not going to run screaming from it…

…Uh, that is, up until the part where it all goes a bit Crossover Event-y and the Metal Men all die…oh, Didio, and you were doing so sort of okay at this game!  Yikes.  Well at least the man’s consistent about what he thinks “drama” is…

…But up until that point, everything’s definitely got the right kind of fade-in and fade-out, and I think that is not nothing…because the form’s being engaged with properly here, even if the story starts out sucking, and then finishes worse than that.

But then there’s Metamorpho, and it’s got a great story…and a great artist, and a lot of great self-conscious use of the form…and yet it seemed to lose people almost as much as the Metal Men did.  Personally I thought it was a LOT better than Metal Men, but…I don’t know, did it seem to anyone else as though it begged to be given two pages at a stretch?  Oh, the form, the form…it’s a punishing form.  The pace has to be different…I think Gaiman and Allred accomplished something quite remarkable, in that they almost got it down perfectly, but in the end what they had was too much fun for them to compress any further.  It seems as though there is something about the caesura within a single page that’s important too, as important as the caesura between pages…

Which is something a lot of people seemed to have a little trouble with.  Deadman, that started so brilliantly (it remains one of my favourites), soon lost a bit of its grip on that…Superman, oddly enough, found it but not in time.  And my God, when it finally did it was instructive as hell:  because it revealed that the words weren’t really doing anything for the story.  And previously I’d thought it was the art that was letting it down!  But it wasn’t, and I think that’s another lesson this experiment has taught us…Superman, and I hate to say this, is a much better read if you only look at the pictures…uh, and if you cut out one or two of the pages…a rather disjointed strip, actually…

Whereas Green Lantern was not disjointed, but simply (it seems to me) didn’t suit this form much at all.  Perfectly fine story, perfectly terrific art, but there was something in it made for living in the confines of a book…just as, I think, the Supergirl feature profited by being placed outside the book, that one can envision it being wrapped in so easily:  essentially a twelve-page backup story, that found a greater sense of episode as twelve isolated pages, that allowed it to finish more strongly than it probably would have in another format.  And yet these weren’t failures or triumphs, so there is not as much to say about them…I don’t think we learned much from them.  More interesting in that light is Hawkman, and the Catwoman/Demon strip…and oh God I had such hopes for the Catwoman/Demon strip, in a way it did everything right…and yet nothing really happened in it, did it?  An interesting development:  right across the page in Hawkman we see the same — the SAME! — impressive facility with the single-page format, but the idea is so much cleaner, the meaning is so much more urgent, and the character makes so much more sense…I mean, I’m no particular fan of The Awesome, these days, but after my initial disappointment with the “we flap” dialogue — which I thought was a bit too awfully cute — there was no point at which I was not grinning at the Awesomeness of Hawkman.  No point at which I wasn’t thinking of how much more of this I’d like to read…

And it’s the same, of course, with Adam Strange:  in which Pope seems to tell much more than just twelve pages worth of story, somehow.  Adam Strange finds the time to get lugubrious, to cut away to different locales, to invest its characters with a tingling sense of purpose that’s lacking in all but a few of the Wednesday Comics that surround it — Pope says he missed the boat a little bit on this one, but I’m not so sure he did:  mania on Rann and depression on Earth barely even calls for the old business of whether or not Strange is delusional, but it’s not awful that it’s there, if only because it does indeed point to what’s important:  a certain quasi-Ballardian curiosity about what this updated John Carter signifies.  So this could be something, this strip…something we haven’t really seen before, or at least something we haven’t seen for a long time…

Which puts it neatly in company with Kamandi, another of the Wednesday Comics that seems to know how to do everything right.  Like Green Lantern and Supergirl, I can’t find much to say about it:  like them, it accomplishes everything it sets out to do, the only difference being that, like Hawkman and Adam Strange, it really is suited to the page-a-week broadsheet form.  That Metamorpho came so close to…!

Which brings us to Flash, because what it accomplished with its “double-stripping” solved a problem Metamorpho couldn’t get itself around, and also covered a lot of the same ground in terms of story, that Superman and Teen Titans did…only, with a little more freshness.  I mean, these are all “classic” stories that I’m incredibly sick of, you know?  And not only that, but stories that require a certain level of background knowledge — stories more or less in synch with the regular books, in the regular DC universe.  Superman chats with Batman and Lois Lane in a way that to an “entry-level” reader suggests there are a lot of character dynamics going on in the “modern” version of Superman he doesn’t know about, and that seem really dull…similarly, though I grinned when I saw the “Iris West” strip, and liked Gorilla Grodd, I can easily see their inclusion as “just for me”.  Well, but whatever, everyone knows what the Flash can do, and focussing on Iris’ problems with being his girlfriend is a LOT more accessible and entertaining this way, then it would be in a book.  A LOT more, did I say that already?  I want to see another Flashy time-travel story about as much as I want to eat a can of No-Name Cream Of Mushroom Soup, but the nice thing about this particular kick at that can is that it’s got a reason to exist…which is something you can’t say for other Flash time-travel stories.  I mean, you know, YAWN and everything, for the time-travel conventions this thing employs — I do not need to see those — it seems those have been the absolute backbone of every piece of shit comic DC has put out for decades — but at the same time there’s an air of “right, covered that!” about this fairly-breezy strip that I can’t help but endorse.  Yes, by all means, if we’re going to have it, let’s get done with it…if Flash must be constantly engaged with these mini-Crises, let’s just give him one that settles the issue.  Noticeably, this thing would be absolutely boring as sin if it didn’t have Iris in it, and I think very possibly that’s the point:  it oughtta be a point well-taken, too.  I am not sure I’d call this Flash a smashing success, in fact I think it started much better than it ended — not sure the “travelling through comics” bit really accomplished much, and the climactic episode in #11 seemed overwrought, if very nicely-drawn indeed…I liked it all, but it seemed tacked-on to the material from the first few issues whose light-hearted SF-romance strip-mashing I really enjoyed…

…And besides, I think Wonder Woman did all that quite a bit better, don’t you?

I may be in the minority, here.  Certainly Wonder Woman had its flaws — at least, one senses it really needed a much bigger page to be read properly.  But if any of the Wednesday Comics deserves to be printed in a nice, glossy, hardcover edition it’s this one:  by far the most ambitious effort in the bunch, it’s only held back from being the very best of them by the unfortunate printing conditions…and you could seriously have knocked me over with a feather when I got to the Fenris page and realized how very, very, very much I wanted this to be an ongoing, and for it to replace the stodgy old Wonder Woman of the regular comics that over the years we’ve grown to love and not give a shit about…perhaps as a Vertigo title?  My goodness, DC, isn’t it about time you gave up on the “superheroic” Wonder Woman that nobody likes, and accepted some new Wonder Woman people would like?  Isn’t it just painfully obvious by now that as soon as Diana Prince hits the public domain she’s gonna be an unbelievable sales sensation? Due to all the people there are who would know what to do with her, if only you would let them.  I think DC could stand to have three or four separate NEW Wonder Woman titles, myself…

But so, a Vertigo series, well maybe…but to not see Caldwell’s work in some oversized, page-a-week format would be a sin on the level of killing a mockingbird.  The non-comics readers I showed this to ooohed and aaahed over it like you wouldn’t believe…of course they couldn’t read the thing, hell even I could barely read it…but the important thing is, they got it.  Even though they couldn’t read it.  And they were dazzled by it.  And I like to think there’s nothing here that clearer printing couldn’t solve, in a sense it’s a failure but in another it’s a giant success, because in all ways but one it is marvellously well-suited to the broadsheet page-a-week form, and don’t let yourself be fooled by the complicated swirl of the panels, because kids like solving puzzles…and here we are really talking about it, this is genuinely a kid’s comic.  So Caldwell wins, because I’ll be re-reading his Wonder Woman for a long time to come, and pining away for it…even if it’s not on newsprint.

Which just leaves Sgt. Rock

But of course there’s absolutely nothing to say about Sgt. Rock now, is there?  It’s Joe Kubert drawing Sgt. Rock, it’s timeless.  Nice script by the young’un, too.  So, let it be known, I’ll read as many of these as the Kuberts can make, I’ll just read ’em and read ’em, I mean this one is just like Wonder Woman in that sense, except it is obviously not an experiment, it is SGT. ROCK BY THE KUBERTS and it doesn’t need my summation, anymore than it needs my introduction.  Each person I showed Wednesday Comics to simply hollered out:  “hey, it’s Sgt. Rock!”  Yes, I replied.  Yes, it is.

And so what else is there to say?

Wednesday Comics.  Make more of these, DC.  But then for God’s sake don’t just let the cool stuff lie there, after.

Call it a dry run.

8 responses to “Flashback! To “Wednesday Comics…!”

  1. I note you had nothing to say about Teen Titans ;)

    Wednesday Comics makes me angry, to be honest, because it shows that they *CAN* get it right – and it also demonstrates very clearly that the further they get from the current DC formula the better the results – but then that means there’s no excuse for the other dozen comics a week they put out…

  2. Teen Titans made me so goddamn tired.

    You look at Metamorpho and think how awful it is that the Periodic Table bit got strung out over two issues — it is not really supposed to be the sort of thing one can read twice, I think. You look at issue #2 and wonder why there’s nothing going on, there. But I’d buy six single pieces of paper folded down the middle, with two Metamorpho pages on ’em, for a buck apiece every week. Batman, I don’t know if they could keep doing these…the art is really everything. Flash, I think they shot the bolt. Deadman I could stand to see again. Sgt. Rock is something they should simply do.

    Superman and Green Lantern…you know, I can’t read stories about superheroes where the point of the story is that they’re inspired/an inspiration to others, I can’t really read super-nostalgia at all anymore. I think there was a time and a place for it after the Nineties, at least a time and a place for it so long as it wasn’t in toxic concentrations…but we don’t have those stomach problems anymore, that need a dose of super-nostalgia to function as antacid for them. What we have is a whole new pack of problems, and super-nostalgia’s one of them. Similarly, Supergirl is a cute strip, but I’m not sure cute superhero-stuff is something I find novel anymore either. Anything about the super-quotidian just makes me shudder now, I can’t handle it. And I like Supergirl, but I don’t know what the fuck’s up with Supergirl, I have no idea what her story’s supposed to be, maybe I just haven’t been paying attention and maybe it doesn’t even matter, but then again maybe I don’t have to like Supergirl, there I said it, just because she happens to be around.

    And once a Catwoman/Demon crossover’s been done, it’s pretty well been done, so who really needs to see it done again…shame about that, it was such a neat idea, had real potential…

    But I’d buy Kamandi, Hawkman, Adam Strange, and Wonder Woman again, straight up, no questions asked. So you wonder what they’re waiting for: I mean, I know they have to tend to their now-tiny garden, and they don’t want to risk a lot of effort on recapturing previously-lost readers, but really how much of a risk would it be to make a Hawkman comic that had some action to it? That Wonder Woman thing really galls me, too…you remember a couple years ago there was somebody who made a kind of manga-ized WW? And it was really good, I thought, this was just some woman who’s out there and who likes to draw and likes Wonder Woman. I recall there was a Project Rooftop Supergirl I really liked at around that time too, not that I have ANY bad thing to say about Amanda Conner but looking at both of these back then I thought, yeah, just keep them out of that old filthy sandbox it seems EVERY GODDAMN CHARACTER has to play in, let the characters go off and do something of their own, for heaven’s sake. Go off and try to keep their secret identity for a while, you know even just that. I’m not kidding about DC having four or five Wonder Woman comics going, I don’t imagine WW is something they’re ever going to get a big corporate handle on, I’m not saying give up the copyright, I’m just saying how about a little, I don’t know, a little perestroika, or something. I’m not saying they have to do the really scary thing and go out looking for new fans — nothing like that. I mean, heaven forfend! But can you imagine, a comic you’d want to buy besides Batwoman and B&R, maybe even something that was GOOD…not Manhunter or Blue Beetle good, but GOOD good…the mind kinda reels at the possibility. There are already DC readers who’d buy it. But no it’s gotta be the goddamn shared universe all the time, every day. It’s stultifying.

    And I’m ranting…

  3. We rant on and on about wanting done-in-ones because we can’t just drop a book when it thinks it’s so much cleverer than we are it can afford to jerk us around like that, and so for us the done-in-one is the antidote to a way of storytelling that aims at devaluing what you just read.

    That’s not why. I don’t want done-in-ones because I’m sick of cliffhangers; I want them because I’m sick of comics in which nothing interesting happens in three out of six issues because the writer is writing for the TPB. I want done-in-ones because it forces the writer to move it along a bit. I’m paying three bucks for this comic!

  4. You’re far kinder to the Superman strip than I could be. I have nothing good to say about it … well, I *almost* kind of like all that heavy handed lonely Superman stuff just being a villain’s sci-fi ploy, but … naaah. I don’t even like the art on this one.

    Agree with Flash starting better than it ended; wished it had held on to that initial playful tone as well. Makes all that time travel go down better to not be attached to something so *serious* (although unlike you I don’t know that I’ll ever be tired of time travel), and Iris leaving is a more interesting threat than Iris needing a rescuing anyway.

    The thing I think made Hawkman work is how totally unself-conscious it seemed. Because self-consciousness is what makes that Awesomeness so awful a lot of the time – how do you do superheroes in 2009 for an adult audience that says they want sophistication to be married to concept? So it all comes off in that semidetatched, semiironic written-according-to-a-manifesto way. Very mannered.

    Kyle Baker, though, I get the sense that he didn’t sweat it for a second – he didn’t worry if the dinosaur was dumb or clever, he just went with what *felt* right. So you ended up with something legitimately fun instead of this weird artistic *simulation* of fun.

  5. But Matthew…isn’t that sort of the same thing?

    Justin: I thought exactly that about Superman, too (except less on being able to tolerate the “lonely Superman” thing…but there was something about that big X-ray-face Superman picture, I thought something could be done with that.

    As disrespectful as this sounds to the writer…read it without the words, would be my suggestion. Still rough times getting through that page where he’s talking to Batman, that is SUCH FILLER DAMNIT…!

    With the Flash thing, sigh…it’s like there has to be this education process there now, the reader always has to be reminded HEY FLASH COMICS ARE REALLY SERIOUS GUYS, SO PIPE DOWN THERE IN THE BACK, WHOLE UNIVERSES ARE AT STAKE HERE…! Plah. I blame Mark Waid. I mean in at least a way, you have to say that WC was attempting to mimic a mass-market thing here, we were all kind of pretending (or at least imagining) what a non-comics person would take from all this…so, it’s annoying to think that Flash has become so damn calcified that even in this little pretend-space it has to be all deadly and apocalyptic…even if at the end it’s brushed away. This stuff’s pretty abstract, pretty “who cares”, and it always was; I just want to see Flash run fast, really. I don’t need him to avert dire futures.

    Still, the stuff with him and Iris at the beginning was nice and clean, wasn’t it? And the art was nice…the big climax on Page 11 was really neat-looking…

    I don’t know; not liking Waid’s Flash, it’s hard for me to want to think too much about true love saving the day from dystopian alternate realities. So I am trying not to think about it, I’m trying to ignore that part of it.

    And Hawkman…Baker was even able to bring in the idea that the rest of the DCU is out there someplace, without that wrecking things. He gets across that Hawkman doesn’t much care what anyone thinks of him, he doesn’t much care what anyone says or thinks…he’s pretty hard-boiled. Kind of like the idea, too, that if you’re a hijacker in the DCU, you better look out, ’cause this guy’s like the Aquaman of the air, he will fuck you up but good if you start screwing around up there. Superman’s off catching Lex Luthor (does he ever catch him anymore?), Green Lantern’s off in space, but Hawkman’s got nothing but time, baby…while I was reading the first couple of these, I was thinking (maybe even saying out loud) things like “yeah…YEAH, how complicated does it have to BE, eh?” Baker knows how to not fix what ain’t broke. Everything about Hawkman sucks because he never does anything, and when he does do it we’re all blase about it ’cause it’s just motion, never action. But this IS what “The Awesome” was supposed to be, Hawkman fights a dinosaur with a mace…but it isn’t The Awesome, it’s just a story, it’s just pretty good, and that’s all. Anyone could do it, if they wanted to.

    Though probably not quite this well…

  6. But Matthew…isn’t that sort of the same thing?

    Maybe. But I don’t have a problem with the style of decompressed comics. In fact I kind of like it! The only problem is that we don’t have time for it. There are only 22 pages, and each one costs most of a quarter. So it’s suboptimal to have a one- or two-issue story puffed out to six issues. It’s not a matter of being too clever; in fact, I’d say that the writers aren’t being clever enough! Come on, guys, ideas are cheap!

  7. Wednesday Comics was indeed an interesting experiment, if for no other reason than demonstrating that those old Sunday Color Comics produced by Milt Caniff, Alex Raymond, Hal Foster, Windsor McCay, Charles Scultz, Bill Watterson, Chester Gould, Al Capp, Walt Kelly etc. etc. were a lot harder to create than they looked.

    Although the artwork was a joy to behold on each and every page, it was clear that only a few of the creators involved really got a handle on the format. Supergirl, as cute as it was, seemed little more than a classic Action Comics reprint published one page at a time. And I won’t even get into Superman (the format isn’t really designed for decompressed plot twists), GL (nice comic-book story, perhaps, but didn’t work as a comic STRIP) Teen Titans (hopeless) or Metal Men (Wouldn’t it have been great if the strip had just been a series of one-and-done sitcom style embarrassments misunderstandings between Doc Magnus and his robots? Kind of like Hi and Lois or Blondie?)

    You hit the nail on the head for Flash, Deadman and Catwoman/Demon, which I would call ambitious failures.

    Metamorpho and Batman came very close to hitting the mark in my book, but the first was a bit too self-consciously cute while the second couldn’t quite capture the noir feel of those Secret Agent X-9 comics by Dashiell Hammett and Alex Raymond. (A tall order to be sure.)

    Leaving, I guess, the strips that worked magnificently: Kamandi as Prince Valiant (my personal favorite); Wonder Woman as Lil Nemo and Adam Strange as … well … Flash Gordon on LSD. Each was worth the price of admission.

    Joe Kubert on Sgt. Rock is Joe Kubert on Sgt. Rock and therefore, as you say, beyond critical observation. It is what it is and must be accepted.

    As for Hawkman, I thought Kyle Baker did a great job of conveying the joys of super-hero comics through a much – and unfairly – maligned character. What I always liked about Hawkman, especially the Silver Age version, was the simple fact that despite all the fancy, space-age tools at his disposal he chooses to fight crime with a mace because THAT’S THE WAY HE LIKES IT.

    Baker recognizes the innate awesomeness of this trait without falling into the self-consciousness of the pre-fab AWESOME™ so many bloggers fall for these days- a neat enough trick in and of itself.

    Which is why he’s Kyle Baker, I guess.

  8. Pingback: Speed Reading: Breathing in Space, the Blur, Casting, EVS vs. Carmine Infantino & More « Speed Force·

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